COVER STORY : What Would Walt Say? : The credits read Disney, but 'Aladdin' is a brand-new 'toon, an irreverent high-stakes gamble that veers sharply from tradition

Joe Rhodes is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

It was the spring of 1991 and Andreas Deja, working feverishly to finish his work as a supervising animator on "Beauty and the Beast," didn't have much time for rumors. He was, after all, facing a wall of deadlines, immersed in the most expensive (and ultimately most successful) animated feature the Walt Disney Studios had ever produced. And yet, high as expectations were for "Beast," the real buzz on the lot seemed to be about Disney's next animation project. Everyone was already talking about "Aladdin."

"We'd all heard they were trying some really different things over there," remembers Deja, who, once he finished his work on the self-absorbed Gaston in "Beast," was himself scheduled to start working on "Aladdin," designing the film's chief villain, the Sultan's treacherous adviser Jafar. He remembers the day that one of his assistants, back from looking at some of the preliminary "Aladdin" drawings, came running into Deja's office, visibly upset.

"Do you know what they're doing over there?" she said, agitated. "Do you know what they're doing to the Genie? They're going to have him turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger. "

"No, they're not," Deja said, looking up from his drawing board. "They wouldn't do that. You can't do that. You can't turn him into a contemporary actor."

"Well, they are. And all sorts of other things too. You won't believe it."

Deja didn't, so he ran over to the "Aladdin" offices, where animator Eric Goldberg was indeed drawing some very strange things--a jut-jawed, electric blue Robin Williams-inspired Genie who speed-bounced from one characterization to another, everything from a game show host to a fey fashion designer to a snooty French waiter and, yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not to mention Arsenio Hall, Groucho Marx, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Ethel Merman and, for a moment, one of Disney's own beloved characters.

"That's when it dawned on me," Deja says. "We're not going to be doing this one by the book."

The "No Lookie-Loos Allowed" signs--Disney-speak for "Keep Out"--had been posted outside the theater on Dopey Drive, a warning to anyone wandering around this part of the Walt Disney Studios' Burbank lot that important, top-secret work was going on inside. And, indeed, there was.

"Go back to where the elephant climbs the tree," Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was saying, sitting in the middle of the theater, wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and surrounded by half a dozen people with legal pads and pens, all of them poised to write down whatever he said as he critiqued, in excruciating detail, "Aladdin's" sound mix.

"There. Right there." Katzenberg had found the scene he was looking for, when the Genie transforms a monkey into an elephant that, understandably confused, tries to scamper up a coconut tree. It was the accompanying sound effect--something resembling a twirling penny whistle--that he didn't like.

"It's a cheap shot," Katzenberg said. "Too 'toony. Much too cartoony. We can do better than that." The pens dutifully hit the paper, even as Katzenberg moved on to the next scene and noticed that there weren't enough pounding noises as the same elephant climbed a set of palace stairs.

"Boom!" Katzenberg shouted, demonstrating just where the sound of thunderous footsteps ought to be. "And Boom! Right there. Boom! Boom! Boom!"

That a studio chief would be involved in a session like this is a pretty good indication of just how important the renaissance of animated features has become to the Disney empire. Any doubts that the studio could return to the glory days of "Snow White" and "Fantasia" were blown away by last year's stunning commercial and critical success of "Beauty and the Beast," which, in addition to becoming the first animated film ever to earn an Academy Award best picture nomination, took in more than $140 million.

"We hate talking about this," Katzenberg says in an interview, "because I'm convinced that if we ever allow the business of these movies to take center stage it will corrupt the pureness of what takes place (in the animation department). As soon as we start worrying about whether the next movie will make more than the last one, then I believe that's the beginning of the end.

"Now, you'll send me off talking about what's wrong with Hollywood today, where most of the time it's not about making good movies, not about pursuing the most creative path or taking the greatest risk, but only about making more money. And that's why movies, for the most part, are so much less ambitious than they used to be. But so far that pollution has not made its way into animation."

As much as Katzenberg may not want to hear it, "Aladdin" directors John Clements and Ron Musker say they are very aware of the raised stakes awaiting their film's release on Friday, knowing that--in addition to the merchandising blitz--there will be a level of critical and box-office scrutiny that would have been unthinkable nine years ago when the pair worked on their first Disney film, "The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective."

"They've become such event movies now," Musker says. "It's a little scary."

But, he points out, accompanying the increased pressure is a growing acceptance of animation as serious filmmaking, a validation of the craft he has loved since childhood. "They used to talk to people in animation like it was the poor stepsister," he says.

"They'd say, 'Why don't you get into live action, where the real glamour is?' Well, now animation has become the Tiffany division. We're the prestige pictures now."

When Clements and Musker, who had just finished writing and directing "The Little Mermaid," hired on nearly three years ago to write a screenplay for "Aladdin," they were drawn by the prospect of creating something with a very different tone from the classic Disney animated films of the past, something wilder, faster-paced and more contemporary. And when they started thinking about what kind of Genie they'd like to see, only one name came to mind.

"We always thought of Robin Williams as the Genie," Clements says. "And we wrote him that way from the start."

It was, at the time, a huge gamble, because there was no way to know whether Katzenberg would go for such a broadly comic interpretation or even if Williams would be interested in the part. To bolster their case, Clements and Musker had Eric Goldberg--hired away from Pizzazz Productions, a London animation house where he had specialized in high-energy comedic commercials--animate a routine from one of William's comedy albums.

"There was a line in one of the bits," Goldberg remembers, "where Robin says to the audience, 'Tonight, I want to talk to you about the very serious problem of schizophrenia.' In the animation, I had him grow another head, so he could argue with himself about it."

Katzenberg, previously unsure whether Williams' scattershot improvisations could work in the context of a Disney animated movie, was sold. He immediately called the actor, showed him the tape and introduced him to Goldberg. "This," Katzenberg said, "is the man who made you move." Williams, impressed, signed on.

Barely a month later, Williams would find himself in a recording booth at George Lucas' Skywalker recording studios in Marin County, armed only with a microphone and a script and the assurances from Clement and Musker that was he free to improvise as much as he wanted.

"We never thought that Robin would come in and just read the script as we'd written it," Musker says. "And he didn't."

What they got, in that initial four-hour recording session, was their first real indication of just how different "Aladdin" could be. Although they had written the script with William's free-form shtick in mind, they hadn't expected that he would careen into such a dizzying barrage of characters. One minute he was an evangelist screaming "Yay-esss! Hallelujah!" and the next he was Walter Cronkite. The first scene alone he tackled 25 times, in 25 different ways, stretching and bending premises to the point that scenes originally meant to last 30 seconds suddenly were 10 minutes long.

"Come on down. Look at this," Williams would say at one point, pretending to be a fast-talking merchant in a Middle Eastern bazaar. "Combination hookah and coffee maker. And it also makes julienne fries.

"And this? I have never seen one of these intact before. The famous Dead Sea Tupperware. Ahhh. Still good."

The script had been written to allow Williams to do a variety of character types. "That was always the idea," says Goldberg, who attended that initial recording session. "What we got from him, though, was his entire bag of celebrity (impressions). We got everything. And aside from the fact that you had to pick all of us up from the recording room floor, we just thought, 'We're gonna have to use this stuff. It's too good not to.' "

"Believe me, Robin Williams is more than a performer in this movie, he is a co-author," says Katzenberg, claiming not to be bothered by the fact that Williams declined to have his name mentioned in any of "Aladdin's" marketing materials, not even the production notes for the press, in which the name of every other performer (including comedian Gilbert Gottfried as a nasty parrot named Iago) is listed.

"We didn't hire him for his celebrity or his marquee value," Katzenberg says, pointing out that Williams has every right to reserve his promotional energies for another film, Barry Levinson's "Toys," coming out next month. "We hired him for his talent."

*

I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam.

Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home.

--From "Arabian Nights," lyrics by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken

As critical as Williams' participation turned out to be, "Aladdin's" irreverent tone had actually been set much earlier. It was the late Howard Ashman who first proposed a musical retelling of the magic lamp tale in early 1988 while he and partner Alan Menken were still working on their Academy Award-winning score for "Little Mermaid."

Ashman--who envisioned the story as a campy 1930s-style musical with a Cab Calloway-like Genie--wrote the initial 40-page treatment and, with Menken, six songs for "Aladdin," three of which remain in the finished version. (After Ashman's death in March, 1991, Broadway lyricist Tim Rice--co-author of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita"--joined with Menken to complete the film's musical score.)

But the real work of fleshing out the story fell to Clements and Musker. Animation directors routinely take two years or more to see their work come to fruition, an agonizingly slow process that involves hundreds of people and--before the actual animation process can even begin--months of character design, sessions with the stationary drawings called storyboards and voice casting. By April, 1991, with all that behind them, Clements and Musker thought "Aladdin" was ready to go. They were wrong.

"We had the entire movie on story reels and showed it to Jeffrey," Clements remembers, describing a rough-draft version of the movie in which all the storyboards are filmed and matched with the recorded dialogue. "And his reaction was, 'I think we've got to start over.' "

Although Katzenberg found the story filled with flaws, his biggest problem was with Aladdin himself, the street-hustling young hero who, with the Genie's magical assistance, wins the heart of the beautiful Princess Jasmine and does battle with the evil Jafar.

"Aladdin was the least interesting person in the movie," Katzenberg says, recalling his objections. "Whenever he was in a scene with Jasmine she so overwhelmed him with her personality and intelligence, it was like he wasn't even in the scene. He was transparent. You didn't care about him. Now, how do you have a movie called 'Aladdin' where Aladdin isn't worth caring about?"

What followed, as Clements recalls, was three months of "total chaos." With the first set of production deadlines looming, he and Musker had to tear their film apart, going--literally--back to the drawing board. A new team of writers (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) was brought in to rework the script. Songs and some characters (including Aladdin's mother) were jettisoned, while others, particularly Aladdin, were dramatically redesigned.

"I originally was thinking of him like a Michael J. Fox character, short in stature but with a big ego and lots of dreams," says animator Glen Keane, an 18-year Disney veteran who acknowledges that his original drawing probably made the character look too young. Then, at Katzenberg's suggestion, Keane watched a videotape of Tom Cruise's performance in "Top Gun" and incorporated some of that character's attitude into the new, improved Aladdin.

"In all his poses, I noticed there was a confidence, a look in the eyebrows, that gives him intensity and at the same time a smile that has kind of an impish look, like he's got something up his sleeve," all of which Keane incorporated into his new drawings, not to mention a change in proportions to make Aladdin look about six inches taller.

The directors, meanwhile, were throwing out whole sequences, some of them involving costly computer animation, bringing them back and then throwing them out again, desperately trying to nail down a shooting script before the full animation staff went to work.

"It takes an animator a week to do maybe five seconds of animation," Clements says, explaining why it was critical to make decisions as early in the process as possible. "That's why we try to do most of our editing in the storyboard phase. Changing a sequence once it's been animated is hugely expensive."

And, for the character animators, gut-wrenching as well. Although they often work in anonymous isolation, the animators consider themselves performers as much as any live-action actor. "Absolutely, you've got to get inside your character, you've got to become it for a while," says Andreas Deja.

"But the advantage we have over actors is that, because we play it on paper, we don't have any limitations. In live-action films, only a beautiful girl can play a beautiful girl. But we are not limited by our height, our sex, or our weight. I can play Jafar, or a chicken or a monkey. I can be anything."

"People should take a look at these films," Keane says, "and realize these performances are just as legitimate as the ones by live-action actors. I think Robin Williams and Eric Goldberg should be nominated (together) for best supporting actor this year.

"It really bothered me at the Academy Awards last year when there were all those comments about 'real actors.' I remember thinking, 'Well, what am I?' My performance is just as legitimate as anyone else's. That's still me up there on the screen."

By October, 1991, the changes were enough to Katzenberg's satisfaction that production could proceed, although Clements and Musker grew accustomed to having the studio chairman looking over their shoulder at every turn, suggesting as recently as three weeks ago that they might want to consider taking out a few jokes in the film's final reel.

"Jeffrey believes," says Musker, "that until the paint is dry, changes can always be made."

The closer "Aladdin" came to completion, the further from Disney's romantic fairy tale tradition it went. Not only was it jammed with Williams' one-liners and Goldberg's outrageous sight gags, but it also had an MTV-era pacing, crazy-quilt colors and pop culture references at every turn.

"As clear as it was that 'Beauty and the Beast' was a very traditional romantic fairy tale, the ambition of this movie was to go as far to the other side of the arena as possible," Katzenberg says. "You have to understand 'Aladdin' was what it was long before 'Beauty' was in a movie theater. 'King of the Jungle' (Disney's 1993 release) and 'Pocahontas' (the 1994 release) are already what they are. 'Aladdin' could go out and do $10 or $10 jillion. It can't change the course of where those movies are going. The die is cast."

As much as he reveres the Disney animated classics of the past, Katzenberg says stylistic left turns such as "Aladdin" are essential if the animation division, with well over 700 artists, is to remain vital. Requiring a new generation of animators to remain within the confines of "traditional" Disney animation, he says, would have been suicidal.

"Eight years ago, tradition here was a bad thing," he says, referring to when he took over the studio. "There was no room for eccentricities, no room for expression. Everything was by rote, and the result was that nobody wanted to come here. We were down to 160 people, and none of the real talented artists from anywhere in the world were really very interested in working at Disney, because it was so dogmatic. So one of our fundamental challenges has been about keeping our artists engaged, about challenging them creatively.

"Because if Disney is to be a thriving, growing, evolving creative entity, these movies more than anything else are what carry the heritage forward. They represent the essence of what Disney is, was and will be. And if we stopped making them we would simply be a monument as opposed to being alive. That's why it's not about money. If we lost money on these movies they would still be our highest priority."

"If this works," says Goldberg, who as a co-director has already started pre-production on "Pocahontas," "it means we will have the license to start making each of these films as different as they can be, and not just adhere to what had been done in the past. I guess we're going to find out whether audiences are willing to accept (from Disney) an interesting smorgasbord rather than the same meal, well-cooked, all the time."

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